Who’s guarding the guards?

You all know about the minor victory for Truth obtained by the correction of an error in the official English version of Sacramentum caritatis.  An error occurring in the English translation at the time of the public release of the document, was corrected on the Vatican website.

This is a good thing.  But it raises other problems.

A participant, "Janet", in another blog entry (the Snoopy Dance entry) wrote the following in a comment (edited):

Will this correction in translation be brought to the attention of bishops in some official way, or was it just quietly changed to the correct wording? My diocese’s retired acting bishop has already written in our diocesan newspaper about the exhortation last week, and pointed out that latin “could be” used in “large international gatherings” for mass. …  I’m guessing he’s not likely to take a second look at the thing and see the correction unless someone shoves it under his nose and points it out to him, and even then he won’t likely change what he’s already said.

Janet is no doubt correct.  She also puts her finger on a verrrrrrry sore spot.

I have been harping on this stuff like Cassandra for years, but from another point of view.  Consider the following.

Q: When revisions are made to the official version (almost always the Latin), who goes back to revise the vernacular versions?

A: Ummmmm….  nobody?

Welll… people like the Latin translation fanatic who writes for The Wanderer and has a blog.

Documents are not written any more in Latin.  Documents are composed in some modern language, and eventually put into Italian and then all the translators are constrained to work from the Italian. 

This created some pretty absurd situations in the production, for example, of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  The language of composition of much of the CCC was French.  Then it went into Italian.  Then all the other languages version were made from the Italian: including the Latin, which is the official version. 

In the first versions of the Latin, before much screaming allowed common sense to prevail, quotations from LATIN authors had as a matter of policy been translated into French AND/OR Italian, and then – I am NOT making this up – translated back into Latin.  It would occur to most normal people that when it came to quoting a text of, say, a Spanish writer, when it came to the Spanish edition of the document you would simply lift the original text from the very best critical edition available.  Right?  When it came to preparing the LATIN edition of the text, and the citation was from, say, St. Augustine of Hippo, a normal person would look up Augustine’s Latin and then use that in the Latin edition.  Right?   But…. noooo….  And so there was a war to get that sorted out for the eventual publication of the Latin edition of the CCC.  As far as the vernacular editions go… well… don’t ask me.  The whole thing is a mystery.

This is all because the language of composition is no longer Latin, but Latin (just one translation among many) is eventually the OFFICIAL version. 

For the centuries to come, if Pope write and promulgate something important, with rare exceptions (like Mit brennender Sorge) we will accept that he did it because there is a Latin text in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

Consider this: When the various language versions of Veritatis splendor were released in October (Latin was one of them, published in L’Osservatore Romano and in booklets), those modern language versions instantly were distributed as the basis for reprinting the document.  Those are the texts everyone cites when thinking about Veritatis splendor.  However, the official Latin version was published in the Acta of December, if my memory serves.  I once compared the text from October and the text from December and started finding lots changes.  I asked myself… who will go back to correct the modern language versions and bring them into harmony with the OFFICIAL text in the Acta?  Nobody, obviously.  And the result is that people might be citing something other than the official text when they cite Veritatis splendor.

Back to Janet’s question, which reveals a whole new situation:

Q: When revisions are made to the vernacular versions, who will go back to correct the vernacular versions.

A:  …. "Shut up", he explained.

Today, I can spread news and opinion by the click of a few buttons.  Information is disseminated nearly instantaneously.  Fewer and fewer people are using paper versions. 

If I can spread news and texts fast, I am nothing compared to what the Holy See can do. 

The Holy See is the guardian of these texts.  We depend on the Holy See for accuracy.

And yet we see changing texts. 

So…. who is guarding the guards?

Do you remember the horrible, I mean unforgivable mess up with the text of the late Holy Father’s Ecclesia de Eucharistia in which there was a change to the words OF HOLY SCRIPTURE so as to make John Paul II appear as if he had made up his mind on the whole "pro multis" question?  If you don’t know this stuff, read this.

I want to know what the Vicar of Christ said, not what some ideologically interested underling thinks the Holy Father ought to have said. 


We all understand when a mistake is made: errare est humanum.   But we are talking about teachings and laws of the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff.  When it comes to something over the signature of PETER I want the best possible rendering, always understanding the limits of language and translation. 

Folks, I am not nitpicking this translation stuff just for kicks.  This is not amusing.  It is not a matter of joy to find problems. 

We want the Pope’s Magisterium, not the personal magisterium of Msgr. Joe Bagofdonuts who might have a different view of things.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Jordan Potter says:

    I think one thing that will help keep the translators accountable is if the Holy See always appends the names of the translators who produced each language’s version. Make their identities public. Keeping them secret and anonymous gives them more power to play games. I mean, we all know that St. Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate Bible, so why should we remain in the dark about who translates the Church’s official documents today? If their names were public, they would have to contemplate the real possibility of being exposed to public ridicule if they ever pull shenanigans with the Church’s documents as we’ve been seeing.

  2. So, Father, how much of this is just a “comedy of errors” in that the process just makes it so easy for mistakes to end up in translations, given the sheer amount of translating htat hs to be done? And how much of this is due to agenda pushers in places of translation or authority?
    I mean, even with good, orthodox translators, it sounds like the process is going to result in errors.

  3. GFluet says:

    I wish this were a simple comedy of errors, and I wish to publically thank Father Z for his important work in this matter. There is no question that agendas are at work here, agendas contrary to the will of Pope Benedict (read the heremeneutic of discontinuity vs. the heremeneutic of continuity). Oremus!
    Fr Gregoire J. Fluet

  4. Andrew says:

    I have it from a very reliable source that after Trent the Roman Catechism (nota bene: I am talking about the Catechismus Romanus) – was composed in Italian first, and translated into Latin. But those were different times when every Roman Catholic bishop could read Latin. Today, proh dolor, that’s no longer the case. But this linguistic splintering started a long time ago. I have a dream … that some day two bishops, a French one and a German one will join an American bishop and have a lively conversation in Latin … I have a dream …

  5. Edmund Campion says:


    Please check Rorate Caeli this morning, March 31st, EDT. They are reporting that Cardinal Bertone has confirmed the “motu proprio” and they give a quote concerning it. The full story in “Le Figaro” has not been released as yet on-line. The Cardinal reports that the Holy Father will release it at an appropriate time.

  6. I couldn’t’ agree more Father, we want to hear from Peter and Peter only in these matters.

    I recently had a situation where I noticed some discrepancies, minor to be sure but still subject to misrepresentation, in the language used in the English version of the Catechism printed by the United States Catholic Conference, and the English version on the Vatican website.

    I emailed the Libreria Editrice Vaticana to see if I could obtain a printed hard-bound copy of the English version of the Vatican version, but was told none was available.

    I was luckier when the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church came out and got the English version directly from the Vatican as soon as it was announced it had been published, prior to being printed here.

  7. Sean says:

    Why the need for a big splash in several languages? Why the urgency to do this when they take so long even getting near that point? The only way this will be controlled is by publishing the Latin version then letting the draft translations synchronise before their own publication. The delay might even encourage a few bishops to take up Latin as they seek to place themselves ahead of the game.

  8. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Seems to me the solution lies with the Holy See. Am I missing something?

  9. Oratorian says:

    Re: the reference in Janet’s Q&A “Shut up, he explained.”: One of the greatest lines in literature! I never would have expected Ring Lardner to crop up in a trad blog! But it’s so welcome. That deft and succinct combination of brutalism and rationality is a line we’d all like to drop from time to time. Bravo Janet!

  10. Janet says:

    Ok, I’m comfused (no big surprise there…). Who is Ring Lardner? And why are you saying “bravo” to me? The “shut up, he explained” was Fr. Z’s line, not mine. :-)

  11. Oratorian: crop up in a trad blog

    That is because this is not a trad blog!

    If these days I am stressing the older form of liturgy, I in no way diminish the importance of the Novus Ordo (celebrated properly) and the tertium quid which the Motu Proprio will jump start.

  12. Oratorian says:

    Sorry Janet, I thought Fr. Z was quoting you. “Shut up, he explained” is a line written by the American sports journalist, humourist, and writer of first rate short stories, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, better known as Ring Lardner, in about 1910. It is from his short story “Haircut” (I believe that’s the one), and is a brilliant blend of the how rational thought can be misconstrued, the two halves of the sentence being an abjuration under the threat of violence, offered as an explanation of “the way things will be if you don’t” in the mind of a knuckle-dragging thug.

    Fr., you’re right, I shouldn’t have abbreviated. I should have said “traditional” rather than trad, which can be construed as “traditionalist.” But I was in short-story mode. I meant traditional as in Orthodox. One way or the other, it’s a long way from a Ring Lardner short-story. Are you a fan?

  13. Oratorian says:

    Janet: Sorry, “Shut up, he explained” is from “The Young Immigrants” (1920). Again, if you’ve never read Lardner, I recommend him highly. His one play, a musical comedy called June Moon, co-written with George S. Kaufman is delightful. These literary high spirits, by the way, are prompted by a spirit of elation arising from Card. Bertone’s interview published this morning. What fun. The pope’s gonna instruct! The pope’s gonna instruct!

    But…DON’T think I’m not praying for Benedict’s safety.

  14. swmichigancatholic says:

    The Vatican releases the documents in various languages so we can read them. They don’t get referred to in our parishes. If not for the Internet, honestly, we’d never see them.

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